Are megacities really the key to India’s future?

The ‘valeriepieris circle’ has become the stuff of legend on the internet, because it gets across its message simply, visually and effectively:

pop density valeriepieris on reddit

Which set one thinking of another statistic: 21 of the world’s 35 megacities in 2015, also fall within this circle, where a megacity is defined as a city with a population > 10 million.

Rapid urbanization has become the hallmark of the twenty-first century, and it is expected that existing megacities will continue to grow, as there are few takers for new cities to take excess or overflow populations – just look at the number of new ‘ghost’ cities dotting China, built at great cost and still unoccupied. Therefore, governments must learn to live with megacities and do their best to enhance quality of life.

There is one school of thought in the emerging economies that urbanization must be seen as a positive force and harnessed for national development, rather than curtailed. The present Indian Government subscribes to this view and is enthusiastic about building infrastructure to support industry, develop industrial corridors, and foster old and new ‘smart’ cities across the land – with the major beneficiaries of all this ‘development’ being the domestic and foreign private sector.

But other urban experts like Robert Buckley, speaking in a UN Habitat lecture series, are of the view that little attention is being paid to the inexorable increase in urban populations, particularly in very low income countries. Instead of focusing on the issues involved with coordinating a coherent policy response to this demographic trend, the development agenda has focused on how coordination problems in supporting industry can be overcome. This has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional cities, especially within the valeriepieris circle, where paucity of land makes pressure of population that much more intractable.

Furthermore, analysis of the evidence indicates that urban growth in these megacities is no longer a result of ‘pull’ migration, where the newcomer can make his fortune in the city of opportunity, but rather a sad consequence of distress or ‘push’ migration from an unbearable life in the countryside.

The situation is exacerbated by planning practices, often learnt from colonial masters, which are totally out of sync with the predominant village or tribal culture from which these migrants increasingly originate. With cities now being planned after their occupants have arrived rather than in anticipation of growth, this ‘pathological urbanization’ results in chaotic cities without sufficient public space to realize agglomeration economies with dense, fetid slums, and huge informal economies – untaxed and unregulated.

While there is no gainsaying that Indian cities need development planning on a massive scale, especially in the housing and services sector, we need to stem this distress migration at its source – through the tertiarisation of the rural economy in emergency mode. After all, despite the proliferation of towns and cities, India is still only 31% urbanized and we cannot afford to go on neglecting the remaining 69%, who still have a decisive role to play in every election.

As I have argued elsewhere, the solution may lie in the thousands of small towns dotted across the country. (See my post ‘Development and the Rural-Urban Continuum’.) Already, these smaller towns are intimately tied to the agrarian foundations of the country, informally networking tens of thousands of villages with regional and national markets.

Even the most cursory survey will show that no more than 40% of the adult population of these ‘C’ Class municipalities is employed in non-agricultural activities. Therefore, with 60% of their population already engaged in agriculture, these small towns provide the ideal hubs for the tertiarisation of the rural economy through the development of agro-industries and food processing and storage. Once the agro-industries sector is well developed, we can consider FDI in retail without jeopardizing rural livelihoods.

That is the way to prosperity and elimination of local poverty and eventual prevention of emigration to bigger metros, as Brazil has so successfully demonstrated.

And it is also the only option for a country like India to have sustainable development without wrecking its environment and resources, leaving only a legacy of disaster after disaster for future generations. But is anybody listening?

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